Things polishing taught me

For years I’ve seen the amazing mirror shines that people have put on their vintage Airstreams, and I’ve thought, “I’ll never do that on my ’68 Caravel.” My impression of polishing was that it was an exercise for (a) people who are trying to pump up the re-sale value of a trailer. i.e., flippers; (b) people who think a day spent detailing a car for a show is a day well spent, i.e., (to my point of view) masochists.

Well, there I was on Friday and Saturday of this past weekend, in the driveway spending most of the daylight hours with a rotary buffer in my hands … and so I have to admit that my assessment was far too harsh. There are good reasons to polish a vintage Airstream that go beyond financial profit or masochism.

As I said in the previous blog entry, the impetus for this project was Patrick’s offer to come down with a batch of Nuvite polishes and tools, and show me how to do it. It was impossible to say no to that.  So despite my earlier prejudices, I’m now one of those guys who has polished his Airstream—and you know, it’s kind of cool.

In the course of the two days, I learned many things, such as:

  1.  Polishing isn’t as hard as I thought.  I had imagined severe muscle strain from holding a heavy rotary buffer, and excruciating effort to reach every little crack and seam. Actually, the buffer did all the work and even the edging work wasn’t that bad.
  2. It’s not as messy as I thought.  I suited up with a long-sleeved shirt, vinyl gloves, and a baseball cap, so my skin was barely exposed. I thought I’d end up covered in black aluminum oxide, but it wasn’t much at all and it washed off easily. Even the driveway cleanup was easy: just a push broom to sweep up all the little black fuzzies that came off the buffing pads. However, I’m glad I chose to wear my cheap sneakers.
  3. Polishing actually “repaired” the surface of the Caravel’s metal body, at least at a microscopic level.  After nearly fifty years, the skin had a lot of pitting and scratches. The polish moves the metal around so that pits and scratches get filled.  I was amazed to see lots of little scratches disappear.
  4. The neighbors love it.  I was concerned that two days of buffer noise, flecks of black polish getting flung around, and the sight of us working on a vehicle in the driveway in defiance of our neighborhood’s antiquated deed restrictions, might cause some of the neighbors to get a little upset.Far from it—people who were passing by paused to wave or give us a thumbs-up. Yesterday a neighbor dropped by to say how amazed she was with the shine. Turns out that polishing a vintage Airstream is kind of like having a baby. Everyone praises you, even though it’s noisy and messy. Now my Airstream has been transformed from a kind-of-cool “old trailer” to a showpiece.

The only unfortunate part of this is that we ran out of time.  Patrick came down from Phoenix on Friday so we didn’t get started until noon, and both Friday and Saturday we had to stop around 5:30 because we ran out of daylight.  It’s hard to get big outdoor projects done near the Winter Solstice. (I suppose I shouldn’t complain—many of you are buried in snow right now.) On Sunday we both had other things to do.

We got as far as polishing every section of the trailer two or three times in Nuvite F7 (with F9, a more aggressive grade for a few heavily pitted areas). We also managed to do about 90% of the trailer with the next grade, Nuvite C. Realizing we would run out of time, we finished just one panel with the final grade (Nuvite S) using the Cyclo polisher and some towels, just to see how it would look. That’s what Patrick is doing in the photo above.

It’s fantastic. The shine is definitely mirror grade. The metal still has lots of blemishes (deep scratches, minor dings, and pits) but from more than five feet away all you see is a reflection of the world around the Airstream. Click on the photo for a larger version and notice how well you can see the palm tree in the reflection. You can even me taking a photo.

Compare that section to the panels above, which have been done up through Nuvite C but haven’t had the final step yet. The blackish smudging on the upper panels is just some leftover polish that we haven’t cleaned up with mineral spirits yet.  It wipes right off.

Since we are both tied up with holiday and year-end stuff, and then I’ve got Alumafiesta prep to do, Patrick has offered to come down for a day sometime in January to do the final work on the Caravel. That should take him about 4-5 hours. If I can help, I will.  In any case, the Caravel will be on display at Tucson/Lazydays KOA during Alumafiesta in late January 2015, so if you are coming to that event you can see for yourself what we did.

The polishing project

Although the North has been dealing with winter storms and the usual inconveniences of winter, down here in the southern Arizona desert it’s the best time of year for outdoor work. For the past couple of years I’ve taken the opportunity to do major Airstream maintenance between mid October and January, taking advantage of the cool and generally dry weather we get at this time of year.

This time around it looked like I might get away with just chilling out, but then Patrick called and prodded me about getting the Caravel polished. He’s The Guy from Nuvite Chemical Corp., and if you have a vintage Airstream you probably know the name Nuvite.  It’s the premiere polishing compound used to make Airstreams shine like mirrors.

Now, Airstreams never came out of the factory with “mirror shine.”  They generally had a sort of matte shine, the color of factory-fresh aluminum (which of course is exactly what they were.) You could see yourself in it, but not very clearly.  With time, the aluminum would gradually oxidize to a dull battleship gray color, not particularly attractive, which is why Airstream began applying a clearcoat in the 1960s.  The clearcoat delayed the oxidization so the trailer looked new longer.

But eventually the aluminum oxidized anyway, and so vintage trailers owners have a choice: live with the dull patina, or get to work with some polish.  Polishing is a labor-intensive job, so for my 1968 Airstream Caravel I chose the path of least resistance for many years.  I had the clearcoat chemically stripped off back around 2005 when Colin Hyde was doing some sheet metal replacement on it, and then around 2010 my buddy Ken took it upon himself to do a polishing pass on the trailer, to even out the differences between new metal and old.  But the Caravel has never really been super-shiny, and lately it has oxidized back to a patina that belies the trailer’s 46 years.

The photos below show what I’m talking about.  The first photo is a 1953 Airstream Flying Cloud that we used to own. It is fully oxidized. Once a layer of oxidization forms on the trailer, it protects the rest of the aluminum and doesn’t deteriorate further. So there’s no harm in leaving it like this, but it’s not very pretty.  (The streaks below the reflectors are from rusting steel trim around the reflectors. This trailer had been sitting for over twenty years when we bought it.)

The second photo shows another 1953 Airstream Flying Cloud, but nicely polished.  (It belongs to Dicky Riegel, former president of Airstream and more recently the founder of Airstream2Go.) Hard to believe that the metal can go from one state to the other, but it’s absolutely true.  This is what you can do with a few cans of Nuvite and some work.

1953 Airstream Flying Cloud patina1953 Airstream Flying Cloud polished

Enter Patrick.  He is The Guy who goes around the country demonstrating how Nuvite works. I can’t figure out how he does it, since polishing is a demanding task that involves holding a heavy power tool against the trailer body for hours. The black aluminum oxide stains your clothes and skin too.  Yet Patrick is always smiling when I see him, and his fingernails always seem to be clean. He seems to think he has the greatest job in the country.

That must explain it, because he called me and reminded me that months ago we talked about polishing the Caravel.  He certainly could have let it go, since I wasn’t chasing him, but instead he’s going to drive down from Phoenix on December 19 and spend a day or two in my driveway showing me how Nuvite can turn the Caravel into a mirror-like “jewel.”

I’m going to help him, or at least attempt to.  I’m pretty sure he can finish the trailer before I figure out how to get my gloves on, but he’s a good sport and willing to give me lessons on technique. I’m also inviting some local friends to drop in and observe or help. With luck this might end up as a Tom Sawyer-esque episode where all my friends help do the work.

If you are in Tucson or willing to drive down on Dec 19, ping me and I’ll give you directions to the fun (email: my first name at  If you want to observe from afar and keep your clothes clean, I’ll post photos here of the process.

I also hope to learn more about the chemical process of polishing.  It’s interesting in a geeky way. From what I know so far, we aren’t removing anything from the aluminum, but rather “turning over” the surface material chemically.  I’ll ask Patrick for details. And if you want to see the trailer in person, drop by Alumafiesta in late January.  I’ll have it on display in the campground or inside the Event Center.


Old fashion socializing

The past few days in Anza-Borrego camping without my family has been an enlightening experience in some ways.  I have realized that when I am camping solo, I prefer to be away from campgrounds.  Campgrounds are filled with other people and their families and I find them strangely distracting. It’s the “alone in a crowd” feeling.

I don’t usually notice much about the other campers when we are traveling as a family, because we are engaged in our own lives and there’s usually something that needs to be done.  But when solo, there’s a stillness about the trailer that invites contemplation (navel-gazing, I suppose).  At those times, it’s great to be out in the desert with not much else around.

So I know that the next time I am looking for an opportunity to be alone and contemplative, taking the Airstream out for some boondocking will be just the ticket.  That may not be for some time, since we have a heavy travel schedule through February and March.

Anza-Borrego Slot canyon TroyOn this trip it was nice to see all my friends happily engaged in their lives.  Brian & Leigh were busy working on their respective jobs in their “office” at the dinette.  Likewise, Alex and Charon both seemed to be deep into creative projects of various types, although I did manage to break Alex away for one day of recreation.  Stevyn & Troy have been exploring the world of full-time travel, and while they are still getting their footing, I can see that it probably won’t be long before they have a regular routine with their two kids as well.

I took their family out for a little exploration, since they’ve never been to Anza-Borrego and had no idea of the many curiosities and phenomenae to be found.  The Slot Canyon, always a favorite, was a big hit.  It was as much fun for me to show it to them as it was for them to explore it.  I was particularly gratified when Troy turned to me and said he was having that peculiar sensation you get when you actually see something in person that you had previously known only from photographs in National Geographic.  I know that feeling—it’s one of the reasons we travel.

In the evening all of our local Airstream circle gathered by the tailgate of Troy’s pickup truck, with my old gas camping lamp hissing, and we talked for a couple of hours.  I had picked up an apple pie in town (nearby Julian CA is famous for those), and Leigh warmed it in the oven and split it among us.  It all seems so mundane as I recount this, but at the time it was the perfect thing to do.  As simple as it was, it felt like a great moment in life.

That’s perhaps the best thing about this sort of camping.  We have no shopping, no school, no jobs except what we bring with us, and few distractions.  The nights are cold and long in the desert winter, and you’ve got to make your own entertainment.  This encourages more of that introspection I was talking about, and it encourages old-fashioned socializing.  Bonding together over pie and conversation is what it’s all about.

I could have happily stayed out for another week, traveling through California and Arizona, but my time was up.  Appointments, obligations, and demands of work  were calling me back to home, so that evening I pre-packed the trailer and started thinking about the long drive back.  There are very few good overnight stopping points along I-8, and I needed to get back ASAP, so in the morning the only thing to do was to hitch up and hit the road as early as possible.

The Caravel has passed the test.  It’s always going to be a tiny and somewhat inefficient little trailer, but at least it’s a trailer in which everything works!  I have a list of about a dozen improvements that could be made, which I’m going to file for next summer.  For now, it’s ready to go, which means Brett will have a place to stay during Alumafiesta and—if I can work out a second tow vehicle—someday I’ll have it for TBM season…

I’ve never seen that before

I’ve been coming to this park for years, partly in a park this big there’s always an opportunity to see something new—if you just make the effort to look.  The rangers and volunteers who staff the visitor center, and the people you can find camping in the less-traveled areas, are a great source of tips.

Yesterday I pulled Alex away from his computer to get out for “an adventure.”  We decided to do a little off-roading near 17 Palms, a palm oasis that’s a couple of miles off S-22, starting at the primitive Arroyo Salado campsite.  The roads are always sandy, potholed, and occasionally a bit “technical” requiring some driving skill to avoid getting stuck.  None of the roads I’m going to talk about are passable with a 2 wheel drive vehicle, or any vehicle that doesn’t have high ground clearance.  I mention this because we still remember the Tale of the Sinking Dutchman, who thought that a Subaru Outback constituted a suitable conveyance on the local trails.  It has become a favorite campfire story among the 4WD owners.

The Mercedes GL is a remarkably capable off-road vehicle.  I know that probably 99.9% of owners never take them off pavement, but they should give it a try.  We’ve off-roaded with ours in many places over the years, and it has always been surprisingly good it, despite its bulk and street tires.  I’m selective about where we go because I don’t want to strip the paint off by rubbing a piece of sandstone, and I sure don’t want to get stuck.

17 Palms was very nice, but I’d seen it before and after a few minutes of marveling at this strange palm oasis (the result of an underground water supply) we decided to press onward to a place we’d never been: the “Pumpkin Patch.”

This is an area of “concretions”, which are basically like pearls made of natural cement.  Wet sand sticks to a “seed” object like a pebble, and becomes cemented to it.  Wind erosion shapes the concretions as they gradually become exposed to the surface, hence the pumpkin shape.

Pumpkin Patch is in the adjacent Ocotillo Wells Off-Highway Recreational Vehicle Area, which is a long way to say that it’s where the ATV’ers and motorcyclists are allowed to ride.  We met up with a few of them and they tipped us off to a hidden spot where supposedly there were “statues” made of rock.  They weren’t sure where exactly they saw it, and sent us on a wild-goose chase down the Pumpkin Patch Trail.

I can now attest that this trail is passable by cars … but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you really like off-roading in tricky conditions and have the right vehicle.  It’s really Jeep country.  Since Alex and I were, uh, “rather concerned” by the conditions as we slowly drove through, we didn’t stop to take photos, but we probably should have.  If you drove this trail in a Jeep you would not believe that we’d done it in a Mercedes GL.

Of course we never found the rock statues, but by the time we escaped Pumpkin Patch Trail and settled into the relatively flat washes, we didn’t really care.  It about another 90 minutes to work our way out of there and back to the pavement of S-22, plus time for a stop at another spot we’d never seen before: Vista Del Malpais.

Alex called Vista Del Malpais “the best view in the park,” and I think he might be right.  It’s a lot like the view from Font’s Point but even more panoramic.  The Salton Sea is visible to the east, badlands spread out in front in Technicolor beauty, and mountains ringing three sides.  It really can’t be fully captured in a single photo.  Going to Vista Del Malpais is mandatory if you really want to appreciate it, like seeing Grand Canyon in person.

After all that, it seemed like a good idea to head over to the Palms At Indian Head Hotel for a burger by the swimming pool.

Just as the sun was setting behind the mountains, Alex & Charon put on a show for all the RV’ers in their encampment (about 1/4 mile from my site) and for anyone else who cared to show up.  This is the same show they’ll be doing at Alumafiesta next month in Tucson, full of sword swallowing, fire breathing, and other specialties of the sideshow arts.  I’ve seen it probably eight times and I still love it.  From the reaction of the crowd (from age 3 to 60+) it was clear they loved it too.

Today’s plan is much like yesterday’s plan: no plan.  We shall see what happens.  It’s another beautiful day in Borrego Springs CA (sorry to all of you trapped by the snow & cold right now), and probably it is my last day before heading homeward, so I’m going to try to make the most of it.

Out in the desert

Yesterday I relocated the Caravel out to the open desert, just beyond the boundaries of town.  No more full hookup for me on this trip.  The Caravel’s systems all worked beautifully while I was in the state park campground for two nights, and so the next step is to test everything in boondock mode (without hookups).

I’m very pleased with the way the trailer is finally working out, after years of tweaking it.  There are still things I’d like to improve, and I suppose there always will be, but it is eminently usable right now.  I’d like to get the main door to open and close more easily, and it needs a 12v power outlet somewhere, and perhaps a couple of USB power outlets by the dinette.  Stabilizer jacks would be nice, as would a vintage-style awning.  Oh, and while I’m at it, a discrete rooftop antenna for cellular Internet, an easier way to convert the gaucho to a bed, a lighter dinette table, and I’m sure I can think of many other things too …

Somehow I doubt I’m going to get to all of those projects, at least not until I start using this trailer on a more routine basis.  The Caravel is a fun trailer for one person, but not highly practical.  You can do only one thing at a time in it. You can cook, eat, sleep, shower, or work—pick any one, and put everything away before switching to the next.  There just isn’t room to leave anything out.

When Eleanor and spent our first night in this trailer, back in August 2003, we were traveling without Emma and found the Caravel to be delightful.  It rained that first night, and I remember feeling wonderfully encompassed in the tiny aluminum shell while the rain pattered on the roof.  Later when we traveled with Emma (age 3) it never seemed too small, probably because our point of comparison was a tent.  Today I think I would describe it as “romantic” for two if you like cozy surroundings.  (I mean “cozy” in the real estate sense:  small.)  The three of us no longer fit in it, at least not at the same time.

The real point of a vintage trailer like this, if we’re going to be brutally honest here, is that it attracts lots of admirers because it’s just so darned cute.  Everyone comes over and admires it. I give a lot of tours, so I feel obliged to try to clean it up every morning just to be ready for the possibility of someone wanting to peek inside.  Being so small, it doesn’t take long to see it all, in fact you can see it all just by leaning in the front door.

Being out here in the desert is much quieter than the state park campground.  By unspoken agreement, the RVs parked out here are scattered very widely unless they are deliberately camping together, so my nearest neighbors are Brian & Leigh about 100 feet away.  Stevyn & Troy are probably 200 feet away, and other than that I am mostly surrounded by open space and dry creosote bushes.  I prefer it, these days, to a campground, even though the Caravel isn’t optimized for boondocking.

It’s not bad even with only one battery, because the trailer doesn’t need much power.  I converted all the lights to LED and so the only significant long-term power draws are the circuit board in the refrigerator (even on gas it will use 6-10 amp-hours per day) and the laptop.  To make up for that, Brian has lent me his portable solar panel, which generates 120 watts peak, and that’s more than enough to recharge my daily needs, in about an hour.

There’s no furnace in this trailer either, just a catalytic heater which uses no electricity. The past two nights have been balmy, which is pretty rare right now since the eastern half of the country is in the deep-freeze. I hadn’t even needed to turn on the heater until last night when the overnight temperature dropped to 35 degrees F.  Around 5 a.m. I finally couldn’t stand it and fired up the catalytic heater, and then of course I couldn’t get back to sleep so I ended up at dawn taking pictures.  That wasn’t really so bad, especially later when I found a photo in my email from my friend Charlie showing his home in Indiana covered by 10 inches of snow and temperatures dipping to -14 degrees F.

Today’s plan is to roam around the park with Alex, rather aimlessly.  We plan to buy a Julian apple pie, otherwise it’s a solid plan of do-nothingness.  Last night a few of us went to Font’s Point to see the badlands at sunset, when they are just stunning, and I think that set the tone for the next few days. We’re just going to take in the beauty of this place and not worry about agendas.  Or anything else.